Vietnam Vignette: The French Armed Forces at War, 1945 -54

A French Foreign Legionnaire goes to war along...

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French Armed Forces
in Indochina, 1945-54

The core of the French armed forces in Indochina was the Expeditionary Force. It was small, multi-national and professional. The officers were almost entirely French, as were the majority of troops in the elite parachute and armor and commando units. The Armée de l’Air was also almost entirely French. The French did train a limited number of Vietnamese pilots but they had little impact. Air power in general had negligible impact in the Indochina War.

Officers: The overwhelming majority of the officers were French, all of them professional soldiers. Many senior officers, lieutenant colonels and above, had distinguished combat records in World War II, World War I, or both. Entire classes from St Cyr, the French equivalent of West Point, went off to Indochina as brand new lieutenants– most never returned

The Paras: The true elite of the French forces were the paratroops– bataillons de parachutistes.  Otherwise known as the paras, they were used as an elite strike force and strategic reserve.  The parachute battalions were mostly French but some were colonial.

Riverine Forces: Marine commando battalions. They too were primarily of French stock, and again all officers and most NCOs were French. Yet, the chances were slightly better in the riverine units for colonial Vietnamese to serve and rise to elite status. After the French defeat, they formed the core of the South Vietnamese Marine Corps.

Mobile Groups: The equivalent of a task force in the Korean War. Comprised mostly of artillery and armored cavalry units, these elite outfits were frequently used for search and destroy missions and for opening important roads. They had primarily French officers. Some room was made for local troops though, for example one of the most famous of the Mobile Groups, the Groupement Mobile 100 (Bataillon de Coree) had a solid contingent of Cambodians in its ranks. The units, called GMs, were regiment-sized formations that were motorized and mechanized. A GM typically had two or three infantry battalions and an artillery battalion, all truck drawn, plus a squadron of tanks and perhaps a combat engineer company. GMs were generally organized on ethnic lines with respect to the infantry.  There were GMs in which the artillery, armor  and infantry were are all Moroccan for example. One GM had all Muong infantry. Other GMs were predominantly Senegalese, and so on.  Most of the armored units were French, but Moroccans were considered capable of driving tanks and they sometimes had their own armored car companies.

The Foreign Legion: Excepting the officers, the Foreign Legion was composed almost entirely of non-French enlisted soldiers. But not entirely; there was a fair number Frenchmen in the Legion who had collaborated with the Nazis– they were given the opportunity to expunge their records by serving and were classified on the books as “Belgians.” Many of the Legionnaires who served in Indochina were from continental Europe, the highest concentration being Germans. Many were veterans of the Wehrmacht, including former SS men. A number of Spaniards also served as Legionnaires in Indochina. Most were former Spanish Republicans who had fled to France after Franco’s Nationalist victory in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. They signed up for the same reason as most other European Legionnaires: the hard economic times in Europe in the aftermath of World War II had left many unemployed. Others had a difficult time integrating into society after years of fighting and joined for the adventure and camaraderie. And even though the pay was low by European standards, it was generous by African and Asian standards. In addition, the value of the pay was multiplied by artificial currency exchange rates, a sort of slight of hand engineered by the French colonial administrators whereby soldiers were paid in French Francs that they could exchange for Vietnamese Piastres at an artificially pegged and highly favorable rate. They did this, as did many other savvy manipulators of the markets, on a massive scale.

Except for an elite parachute battalion or two, the Foreign Legion fought as line infantry. The officers were French; the NCOs were Legionnaires.

The Legion Troops: The majority of enlisted infantrymen were recruited from colonial nations under French rule, primarily North Africans. They were organized by nationality into Algerian, Moroccan and Senegalese battalions. Each nationality was considered to have its own distinctive military characteristics that dictated the kinds of units to which they were assigned.  The Algerians were almost all infantry.  Most Moroccans were infantry as well, but there were also some Moroccan armored units.  The Senegalese were mostly infantry, but there were also Senegalese artillery units. The Algerians were considered exceptionally steady in the defense– having had proved it against the Germans in the Italian Campaign during World War II. Moroccans were considered to have exceptional élan in the attack. The Senegalese artillerymen were reliable and effective.  For the bulk of the first Indochina War these forces were solidly professional.  Sadly, many North African soldiers’ morale collapsed at Dien Bien Phu. After constant harassment by Vietminh propaganda questioning their role in oppressing fellow colonial peoples, over the radios and broadcast from loudspeakers, many threw down their weapons, some went over to the other side, others literally burrowed into the ground along the banks of a small stream that meandered through the French Base. One Senegalese artillery unit did serve with distinction at Dien Bien Phu.

It was the combination of these two elite organizations, the Legion and the paras, that provided the backbone of the French occupational forces. The Legionnaires were by-the-book professional soldiers, steady and methodical, always trustworthy in carrying out orders.  The paras were also solid organizationally, but they went about their business with a little more panache than did the Legionnaires. They were the glamour boys. but they were also usually more innovative tactically.  A side note: Foreign Legion paras were considered paras first and Legionnaires second.  The paras’ always displayed combat effectiveness and they had an almost mythical reputation. They maintained a rigorous operational tempo: during the years 1951-53 the average parachute battalions frequently participated in as many as four combat drops a year, each one followed by a month of more of hard fighting.  By comparision, very few American paratroops participated in more than two combat drops in World War II total.

Colonial Forces: Fighting alongside the Expeditionary Force were units composed primarily of indigenous troops, excepting the officers of course. These colonial battalions had little autonomy and were commanded by, and paid by, the Ministry of Marine in Paris. Like the Expeditionary Force, the officers and the majority of the NCOs were French. The rest of the rank and file were recruited in Indochina.  Colonial parachute battalions were the exception, most of their soldiers were French. The best of the locally-recruited Indochinese colonial units were independent infantry battalions called bataillons de marche. They were thoroughly professional and just as effective as their French counterparts.

The French also signed-up plenty of manpower from friendly tribal groups. For example, one French Groupment Mobile that fought in Tonkin had two Muong infantry battalions deployed and they were the heart of the unit. Perhaps more significantly, the French recruited many fighters from the hill tribes of Tonkin and Laos, principally the T’ai and Muong (Meo).  These anti-Vietminh guerrillas were frequently effective in tying up General Giap’s advancing forces.

In the course of the war the French Expeditionary Force endured terrible losses. As mentioned above, entire classes from the most elite military schools perished. The French were increasingly forced to fall back on locally recruited material. This tendency, which the French called jaunissement, the “yellowing” of the army, was increasingly apparent by 1952-53.  When the 1er Bataillon Étrangère de Parachutistes, the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, the elite of the elite, dropped at Dien Bien Phu in November of 1953, almost half of its enlisted strength was Indochinese. Some three hundred Vietnamese soldiers volunteered to parachute into Dien Bien Phu– effectively a suicide mission as it had become clear by then that defeat was inevitable.

Last, each of the nations of the French Union of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) had its own national army.  The soldiers in these armies were all locally recruited but, again, almost all of the officers and the bulk of the NCOs were French.  These units varied enormously in quality. The most impressive of these indigenous armies numerically was the Vietnamese National Army, or Bao Dai Army. In practice, the combat value of most Bao Dai units was limited. The important exception was the parachute battalions, the bataillons de parachutistes Vietnamiens, abbreviated BPVN. The Vietnamese paras were first class soldiers. They were very loyal to the colonial government and in fact they preserved the para ethos after the French defeat and many went on to become the elite of the South Vietnamese Army in later years.

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